A head of state has special rights under international law. The sovereign is immune from any interference unless that interference arises in the course of a war. However much we may dislike a head of state we must respect his or her immunity. These rules have been present for many hundreds of years; they allow of diplomats, who are the sovereign’s representatives to travel freely and promote the interests of their nation in foreign territories. That immunity extends to the sovereign’s territory, his travel arrangements and his effects, as well as his person. So when that immunity is breached, that is a breach of international law. These rules, adopted by all members of the United Nations, were breached, seriously breached yesterday when President Morales of Bolivia tries to return home from negotiations in Moscow about oil and gas.
Mr Morales boarded his presidential plane; that is in international law the sovereign territory of the Republic of Bolivia, named for Simon Bolivar, the liberator of much of South America and Latin America from the oppression of Spain. Mr Morales expected to fly from Moscow to La Paz as every other head of state expects to travel, without let or hindrance, in the words of the old fashioned passport. In fact his journey proved to be full of let and hindrance. France, Spain, Italy and Portugal refused permission for Mr Morales’ plane to fly over their airspace.
It seems that these nations were informed, presumably by the United States of America, that Mr Morales was returning with Edward Snowden on the plane, in order to give Mr Snowden sanctuary and asylum in Bolivia. Italy, France, Portugal and Spain would believe what the Americans told them; after all had not Mr Snowden exposed that the United States mount an incredibly detailed and widespread spying operation over virtually the whole world, enemies and allies alike. Presumably Italy France Portugal and Spain thought that they ought to break international law to enable Mr Snowden to be punished for revealing the extent of US spying, which includes spying on their own citizens.
As it turned out, Mr Snowden was not with president Morales who had no intention of giving Mr Snowden a lift to Bolivia. Even if Mr Snowden was on board the plane, it would have made no difference under international law; the plane was Bolivian territory and carrying its president; it was inviolate, or was supposed to be.
But these niceties of international law do not apply, it seems, to small nations like Bolivia; their former colonial masters and the most powerful nations of the world may decide to break international law, with impunity. Of course these nations prey international law in aid when they decide that they wish to do thing like invade Iraq, bomb Afghanistan and Libya. For them international law is a voluntary code which they can opt in and opt out of at will.
Mr Morales plane was diverted to Vienna; he was delayed there for ten hours. Eventually he made it home.
France has since apologised; it has implied that it did not know that President Morales was on the plane and that President Hollande gave permission to use French airspace after it was known. It sounds an improbable story. The Iberian nations, the old colonial masters who in the past plundered much of South America, have not yet sought to explain or justify their actions.
I suppose we should not be too surprised by these events. As in life where there is one law for the rich and one law for the poor, there is one law for the rich powerful nations and another law for the poor small nations.